“The Discovery of Heaven” by Harry Mulisch
Harry Mulisch (1927-2010) bit off more than he could chew with The Discovery of Heaven, his 730-page not-a-magnum opus. After 543 pages of a somewhat interesting plot, the story takes a turn into sheer mundanity. I struggled to finish it.
Let me say I relish reading long novels, but they have to be good long novels. Two that come to mind are Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and one you may not have encountered, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. (Just thinking about how good it was makes me want to re-read it. Perhaps I’ll listen to the Audible version.) I’m ready to take on Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson because I’ve read other novels by him and enjoyed them. But at 910 pages, not too soon,. I need to read some shorter works for a while.
Now, here are some of my major problems with The Discovery of Heaven, and be forewarned: spoiler alert. The author has attempted to write the story of God and Mary and Joseph and Jesus (and Heaven? Heaven?) for modern times (for him, the 1970s). The story and the characters’ behavior is guided and determined, we’re led to believe, by two angels who converse in the Prologue, at the beginning of each Part (which the author names Intermezzos), and the Epilogue. What one comes away with is that these two angels lack the wisdom or emotional IQ to do their job well. This is evidenced by their blowing the head off Max, one of the main characters, with a meteor for no apparent reason. And if that were not enough, also causing his son, Quentin, to disappear – poof! – (with a surfeit of ridiculous archetypal symbolism) through the mystical “Golden Gate” of Jerusalem, again with no apparent reason unless one is to infer the angels did it because he stole the Ten Commandments stone tablets from a Catholic church. But – but – he was returning them to the peoples he felt were their rightful owners, the Israelis, so go figure. They get broken to bits and nobody gets them.
So go figure. The author concocts his version of a virgin birth for Quentin by having two suitors, Max and Onno, have sex with Ada, their amour-in-common, on the same night and she, of course, becomes pregnant with . . . whose baby? And much as Mary Magdalene disappears from the original Jesus narrative, Mulisch throws Ada under the bus with a coma and she is no longer really part in the evolving story, most of which has to do with Quentin trying to find his father. (No Greek mythology here, folks.)
So on the surface you have an interesting plot, but as Mulisch strives to raise it to the level of philosophy or spirituality, his attempt is an utter failure. Even irony is utterly absent: the author just doesn’t have the stuff for any of it. I’ll give him a few twinkles of the eye, but just a few. The novel takes itself far too earnestly.
Part Four is entitled “The End of the End.” Would that it had been so, without another 260 pages to get through.